New Republican politics of old West

Influx of residents aggravates urban-rural divide - altering views on

On the outskirts of the western-slope town of Montrose, Colo., along a lonely piece of two-lane highway stretching up past sagebrush into mountain passes, stands a faded sign.

"Honor America. Join the John Birch Society," it reads.

For most locals, the recruitment effort may amount to preaching to the choir. Much of rural Colorado, 15 percent of the population, already share values with the conservative group.

But when it comes to the other 85 percent who live in the cities and suburbs and register Republican - many of them transplants - the Birchers may need to look elsewhere for new adherents.

As newcomers move into the West in one of the postwar era's biggest demographic shifts, the politics of the region is being transformed - not only among Republicans and Democrats but also within the parties.

The differences are being played out in issues ranging from land conservation and tree harvesting to attitudes toward firearms. The shift in perceptions has been typified in Colorado - traditionally one of the most polarized states in the West - by the debate over concealed weapons.

While the outcome was obviously influenced by the school massacre in Littleton, it also reflected how the urban-rural divide in the West is becoming more pronounced - reshaping Republican politics in particular.

"A lot of the Republican voters who have moved here are liberal socially," says GOP campaign veteran Dick Wadhams, now an aide to Gov. Bill Owens (R) of Colorado. Mr. Wadhams believes the philosophical shift represents a major change for powerful rural conservatives. "I can't imagine concealed weapons resurfacing in the next few years," Wadhams says of once sure-fire legislation that would have eased a state concealed-weapons law, scuttled in the wake of the school shooting.

The growing complexity of the state's politics stems from the massive influx of new residents. In 1992, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 72,000. Today there are 120,000 more Republicans than Democrats. But even though most of the newcomers lean Republican, they are not monolithic in their views.

"You have these old-school, natural-resource conservatives, miners and ranchers, who were joined in the late 1980s and early '90s by the religious right," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster. "Then the newest group from California and Texas are conservatives," but with a twist.

While fiscally conservative, many lean libertarian on social issues: They don't like the government meddling in personal affairs. Many support abortion rights. And when it comes to guns, their views defy Western stereotypes of cowboys and Colt .45s. "Twenty percent are against them, 20 percent are strongly into Second Amendment philosophy, and the rest look at guns issue-by-issue," Mr. Ciruli says.

Pollsters have even found urban Republicans generally oppose expanded gun rights. "There is this middle ground that, while they tolerate weapons, you could talk them into reasonable restrictions," Ciruli says. "But they wouldn't back a total ban."

Given the unique dynamic of party unity, some local lawmakers say party affiliation is secondary. "People don't really care what party you're in," says state Sen. Ken Chlouber, a Republican from the hardscrabble mining town of Leadville.

In Senator Chlouber's case that may be true. He's as well known for his endurance races throughout the Rockies as he is for his political positions.

But closer to Denver, the demographic shift is most prominent in suburban towns like Littleton. One in 4 votes during statewide elections comes from three counties that horseshoe the city.

Given that, local lawmakers are closely watching constituent reaction this weekend as the National Rifle Association holds its annual meeting.

With mayoral elections set for Tuesday, antigun protesters plan a spate of demonstrations. Some lawmakers see this as a time to catalyze the undecided majority, which doesn't oppose guns but isn't enthusiastic about their current regulatory status.

"We want to break the NRA's stranglehold on this legislature," says Senate minority leader Mike Feeley, a Democrat from the west Denver suburb of Lakewood.

But others believe its time to sit back and let emotions cool.

After receiving a death threat, vandalism at his home, and a string of obscene phone calls due to his support of the concealed-weapons legislation, House majority leader Doug Dean is considering leaving public life.

Late this week, gun-curbing efforts in response to the high school shootings failed. In the State Capitol, Republican Ken Gordon reintroduced a bill making it a misdemeanor to buy a firearm for the purpose of transferring it to an ineligible recipient.

"People may see [the shootings] as further evidence of a strange climate in the West that allows individuals with intolerant views to go too far, and I don't know that's exactly fair," says Mr. Brown of The Post. "It takes more to understand it."

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